3 Ways to Start Your Speech and Maximize Your “Magic Moment”

Eleni KelakosAudience Engagement, Executive Presence, Peak Performance, Performance Techniques, Presentation Tips

You’re sitting in a darkened, crowded auditorium. The speaker you’ve been eagerly awaiting has just been introduced. In silence, she steps up to the microphone. This moment—the silent magic moment before the speaker utters her first words—is almost unbearably pregnant with hope and possibility. It practically crackles with energy. You lean in, ears pricked, breath held, senses on high.

What will she say? you wonder. What will she sound like? Will she capture my attention? Or will she disappoint me?

The moment hangs, brimming with potential.

And then, she speaks:

“Thanks for that nice introduction,” she says. “How’s everybody doing? I’m so glad to be here.”

Those words. You’ve heard them a million times before. Uninspired. Unimaginative. Uninteresting. Dang! you think, Not another boring speaker!

And then, you pull back in your chair, and click the doors shut to your mind and heart. She lost you. She blew the magic moment.

Don’t Blow the Magic Moment!

If only the experience of seeing a speaker blow the magic moment at the very start of their presentation was an exception and not the rule. That’s what I’ve thought, time and time again, in my years as a presentation skills coach. And every time I see a speaker squander the start of their speech, I cringe. Because I know how much is at stake for a speaker and her audience in the first precious moments of a presentation. First impressions are, after all, usually lasting. And they happen in less than seven seconds.

Seven seconds. That’s no time at all! And those seconds include that magic moment of anticipatory silence that occurs while you’re simply standing there with eyeballs on you.

That magic moment exists whether you’re waiting for the flag to drop at a Grand Prix race, for the starting bell on Wall Street, or for the conductor to lower his raised baton and signal the first note of a symphony.

As a speaker, what you say to break the silence of that magic moment is critical. Because the level of expectation in that moment is breathtakingly high. If your first words are ones your audience members have heard a zillion times, they will mentally take their toys and go home.

Make Your First Words Count!

Your first words must make your audience lift an eyebrow with curiosity or surprise. They must encourage your audience to lean forward, eager to hear more.

Imagine you’re a speaker whose expertise is like mine: Coaching people to be better speakers and, in this case, teaching them to mine the gold in the “magic moment” of a presentation’s opening. How might you begin? What brave, bold choice could you make?

Here are three ways you might open your presentation to make the most of that magic moment:

  1. Tell a compelling story. Step immediately into a story that sets up the presentation’s premise—like the story about the speaker that I used to open this article! Remember, if you choose to tell a story—which I believe is one of the most effective ways to start your presentation—never use the words “Let me tell you a story.” Simply start the story, as if it’s happening in the moment. Relive the events of the story with your audience, taking them along for the ride. This is both a courageous and a dramatic way to begin.
  2. Ask your audience an eye-brow-raising question, or series of questions. For example, after standing in silence for seven full seconds, you might ask “I’ve been standing here quietly for seven seconds. In those seven seconds, how many of you have already decided whether you like me or not? How many of you have already judged me by the way I look or the vibe I put out?”
  3. Make a startling statement. For instance, you might count out loud from one to seven. And then you might say “Seven seconds. That’s how little time it takes to make a first impression. An impression that is almost impossible to change.” My speaker colleague–leadership image expert Sylvia Di Giusto–often begins her presentation in this manner, and it always makes an indelible impression (and sets up the problems she is uniquely there to solve for her audience).

Remember: The magic moment of silence that leans into the very beginning of your presentation is filled with audience anticipation. The words you choose to break that silence can push your audience members away or bring them closer to you. Don’t squander your start! Make the most of your magic moment, so you can use your words to change your world.